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Central Asia: Six Months After -- Alliances Shift With West, Russia (Part 1)

By Bruce Pannier and Antoine Blua

Six months ago, the five Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were associated with tales of the ancient Silk Road and with modern hopes of new paths carrying the region's hydrocarbon wealth to hungry markets in the East and West. Many nations have been eager to participate in the extraction and export of Central Asia's oil riches, but few dared spend much political capital in the region, aware of Russia's influence and wary of Central Asia's repressive, autocratic governments. Everything changed on 11 September. With the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition waging war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, the five states found themselves on the battle's front lines, receiving Western attention unprecedented during their 10 years of independence. This attention -- in the form of military partnerships and promises of humanitarian aid and economic assistance -- all but guaranteed significant changes within each of the five nations.

In a four-part series, RFE/RL correspondents Bruce Pannier and Antoine Blua examine how the region has been influenced by the events of 11 September and their aftermath. Part I examines the shifting political and military allegiances in the region and how, despite Western efforts to exert new influence in the region, it's too early to count Russia out of the picture.

Prague, 12 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Central Asia is a region larger than India, inhabited by roughly 55 million people, mainly Muslims. For the past 200 years, the dominant outside influence has been Russia.

Even after 1991, Russia continued to maintain strong links to the five countries that emerged after the breakup of the Soviet Union -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Alex Vatanka is the editor of "Jane's Sentinel: Russia and the CIS," a security assessment publication based in London. Vatanka spoke to RFE/RL about Russia's historical ties to Central Asia:

"Before the campaign started by the U.S. in October 2001, you had in Central Asia a region that had been historically part of the Russian empire or the Soviet Union, a region that was totally dependent on Russia in many aspects of life, [that was] militarily under the Russian sphere of influence, and economically totally dependent on trade with Russia."

This changed after 11 September. The region suddenly found itself on the front lines of the U.S.-led international campaign against terrorism, which began with the fight against Al-Qaeda forces and their Taliban hosts in neighboring Afghanistan.

Less than two weeks after the terrorist attacks in the U.S., Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, one of Russia's staunchest allies, opened his country to the U.S. and its allies in the antiterror war. Even one month earlier, Nazarbaev's public remarks would have been unthinkable:

"We have already given a general agreement to participate in all measures [against terrorism]. There are no concrete requests as of today. If such requests are made, then Kazakhstan will look upon them favorably."

The coalition needed only the right to fly through Kazakhstan's airspace, but the U.S.-led alliance did accept offers to use military bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. In the following months, the U.S. and its partners sent several thousand troops to Central Asian bases.

Uzbekistan was the first country in Central Asia to nationalize Soviet armed forces still on its territory and the first country in the Commonwealth of Independent States to pull out of the CIS Collective Security Treaty, established in 1992 and now comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan was quick to allow the U.S. the use of its southern air base in Khanabad, a short flight from the Afghan border. There are an estimated 1,500 U.S. soldiers there now.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan followed Uzbekistan's lead. Some 1,200 troops from the antiterrorism coalition are currently modifying the Manas international airport in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, to accommodate coalition aircraft. Besides U.S. troops, soldiers at Manas come from such places as Spain, France, Germany, and South Korea. Hundreds of additional coalition soldiers are also believed to be at Kulob air base in southern Tajikistan.

John Schoeberlein of the Forum for Central Asian Studies at Harvard University says Russia initially resisted such participation by the nations of Central Asia.

"In the early days after the attack in September, the Russian government declared that there would be no international force, U.S.-led forces, in bases in Central Asian countries. But they quickly backtracked on that, and since that time [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has pursued a line of cooperation. Though some of the governments in Central Asia have said that they don't need Putin's approval, they have it."

Russia -- both in the latter years of the tsarist period and during the days of the Soviet Union -- invested huge sums in Central Asia to make it a well-defended southern frontier. Ian Bremmer is president of the New York-based Eurasia Group. Bremmer says that despite the region's recent changes of fortune -- with the U.S. now pledging millions of dollars in aid and development assistance -- Russia is far from being out of the picture in Central Asia:

"Russia is obviously concerned that they don't want to lose their geostrategic influence in a part of the world they consider their own backyard and their unique sphere. In the long run, I don't believe the Americans are willing to commit the kind of resources and military forces and attention to Central Asia that would be required to really start making a difference to Russian interests."

Vatanka of "Jane's Sentinel" says the five states would be well-advised to maintain ties with Moscow:

"It is very hard for Russia to disappear from the Central Asian landscape overnight. This is not going to happen. Purely based on economics, the five states are very dependent on trade with Russia. The U.S. cannot replace that."

Much of this dependency remains. Russia still offers the best export routes to markets in the West for Central Asia's riches, such as natural gas and oil. Russia also acted as the region's ultimate protector against outside aggressors and domestic extremists, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Vatanka says 60 percent of Tajikistan's trade is with Russia and that there are thousands of Russian-led troops guarding Tajikistan's mountainous frontier with Afghanistan. Some 35 to 40 percent of Kazakhstan's population are Russian-speaking Slavic peoples. Even isolated Turkmenistan remains dependent on Russian pipelines to export the majority of its natural gas.

Furthermore, there is little indication the U.S. presence will be of sufficient duration or intensity to counter Russia's traditional dominance in the region. Bremmer points out that U.S. interests in Central Asia are only part of its overall battle against international terrorism, and that the campaign in Afghanistan is only one of many fights for the U.S.:

"There are only so many fields of influence that the Americans can pay attention to. There are only so many priorities that can be priorities, in other words. And I think that Central Asia, much as there will be more investment from a low base, much as there will be more U.S. support, I don't imagine that they (the Central Asian states) can maintain 'A minus priority status' for more than another six months or so. And if that happens, the Russian influence -- which has been there for the last 10 years -- will continue to assert itself. So I think in the long run, Russia's role [in Central Asia] is pretty much safe."

For now, with both Russia and the United States involved in the region, the Central Asian states seem well-placed to improve their situation. Ahmed Rashid is the author of several well-received books about the region, including "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia" and "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia." Rashid believes Central Asian leaders are taking advantage of a situation that requires little from them in return:

"I think there is a suspicion there that many regimes [in Central Asia] see this as an opportunity from which they can gain and for which they won't have to give up anything. They won't have to make any sacrifices."

Analysts, however, say that not every Central Asian country is benefiting from the West's increased attention to the region. The government of Turkmenistan, which had an official trade agreement with the Taliban, has allowed humanitarian aid to cross the country's border with Afghanistan, but no military flights have been allowed to use Turkmen airspace, and none of its bases was offered to coalition forces.

Eurasia Group's Bremmer said Turkmenistan's position today is worse than it was prior to 11 September:

"On the downside, Turkmenistan is seen as increasingly isolated. There are a number of people who have peeled off from that government in the past few weeks."

Three former ambassadors and a top bank official have declared their opposition-in-exile to the Turkmen government of President Saparmurat Niyazov since the campaign against terror started. It might be assumed that Russia, which appears to be losing some of its influence in Central Asia, would be anxious to court better ties with Turkmenistan. But as Vatanka of "Jane's Sentinel" points out, Russia may actually be contemplating pressuring Turkmenistan in the future:

"There are two former ambassadors who are hiding pretty much in Moscow, and Moscow is not handing these guys back to Ashgabat (the Turkmen capital)."

Vatanka suggests Moscow may use the presence of the former ambassadors to force Niyazov to be more compliant in CIS matters. Such pressure may already be bearing fruit: after missing nearly all previous CIS summits, Niyazov was present at the last two -- the 10-year anniversary meeting in Moscow last November and the Almaty gathering earlier this month (on 1 March).